The Utah Legislature is considering a bill that would cut inspection fees to EnergySolutions by $1.7 million a year — sparking a rigorous debate.
Proponents of the break argued on the House floor (where it passed 61-11) that the company that disposes of low-level radioactive waste has been a great corporate citizen and has been harmed by Utah’s “exorbitant” regulatory fees. Opponents countered that the company was doing fine and the fees were fair.
Never mentioned in the debate was that EnergySolutions happens to be the single biggest donor to sitting legislators’ campaigns. Last year, it gave a combined $67,700 to 43 lawmakers, including $6,000 to the House sponsor of the bill, Majority Assistant Whip John Knotwell, R-Herriman, and $1,000 to Sen. Daniel Hemmert, R-Orem, the sponsor in the Senate, where the bill awaits a vote.
It used to be that any interested Utahn with a computer and an internet connection could go to the elections website of the Lieutenant Governor’s Office and open the disclosure filed by EnergySolutions to easily find that information.
No more. Now, if you go to the website and click on last year’s EnergySolutions file, you get a message saying, “No reports have been filed for 2017.” Same for 2016.
The information is still available, but it takes a bit of doing and you have to know how to do it. That involves downloading a spreadsheet of all donations and then doing some sorting and data cleanup to figure out what the company gave to whom.
So what changed?
Three years ago, lawmakers quietly passed an amendment to state election law that contained a one-paragraph provision eliminating the requirement for corporations to file campaign donation reports.
“It doesn’t reduce the information, it just reduces redundancy,” said Rep. Brad Daw, R-Orem, a sponsor of the substitute bill. “I, as a representative, have to disclose who I get donations from.”
So, Daw figures, those curious about donations can go legislator by legislator to see, or they can do the spreadsheet work themselves.
Justin Lee, who oversees elections for Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox, agrees with that perspective.
“The idea was just not to force double recording from entities because it’s already being reported somewhere else.”
Asked why it no longer files contribution disclosures, EnergySolutions spokesman Mark Walker cites the law putting that responsibility solely on the candidate or officeholder.
And what does the company get for its generous contributions?
“We do not expect anything in return,” Walker said. “We donate to those who request donations.”
Other big donors that have stopped filing contribution disclosures include the drug company Pfizer Inc., health insurer SelectHealth and Maverik convenience stores.
Not all corporate contributors have followed suit. Comcast, Reagan Outdoor Advertising and the Workers Compensation Fund of Utah — which are among the most prolific check writers to lawmakers — continued filing disclosures last year.
But nonprofits that keep an eye on campaign finance worry about the lack of transparency that can result from such exclusions to the reporting law.
“Our concern stems from our desire to make campaigns and government as transparent and accessible as possible,” said Chase Thomas, of the Alliance for a Better Utah.
Thomas says the state elections office has made impressive efforts to assure information is accessible to the public, but needs to do better in this area.
If the state is going to put the whole onus of campaign contribution reporting on the politician receiving the money while exempting the corporate donor, “then there must still be a way to easily search those giving entities,” Thomas said. “Otherwise, it results in an opaque disclosure system that is not feasibly accessible by the public because they would have to download and read through every campaign’s report to see the extent of the contributions.”
The Utah Chapter of the Sierra Club has opposed the fee break proposed for EnergySolutions. It also criticizes the change exempting corporate donors from disclosing.
“I do think that Utah has relatively stringent PAC reporting laws and I think that other campaign donations are being accounted for currently, but that bill [SB207] certainly wasn’t a move in the right direction for government transparency,” said Ashley Soltysiak, director of the organization.